Video Game Movies: Forever Lost in Translation, or Just New Translators Needed?

Video game movies. Those three simple words conjure up images of failure after failure. Now, I am not speaking about movies that concern video games as a subject, such as Wreck-It Ralph or Tron. No, I speak of the numerous films that have been made that are based upon video games, the vast majority of which have been bombs in terms of critical reception or box office numbers. Though there are a few that do remain enjoyable, if not very accurate in spirit or content to their respective games, most have been dull (at best) or horrible (at worst) features made just to turn a profit based upon the brand name recognition of the source material. In fact, the first thing most might picture is the output of Uwe Boll, a German filmmaker who has made such terrible adaptations as House of the DeadBloodrayne, and Alone in the Dark. Though he may be one man, it is not only his failures that have painted the genre as they are. This does raise a key question: what is it about video games that makes them so hard to adapt?

For me, the issue of adapting a video game to film has a central issue. Namely, the challenge lies in adapting an interactive medium into a passive one. Though adapting a work from one medium to another will always have its challenges, video games are unique in their interactive element. Whether a book or a play, those works have the audience experiencing the world in a passive form, with no control of their own over the story. Video games, however, have their audience actively engaged with their stories. Their audience gets to take control of a character, guiding them through the narrative. They can take as much time as they want, exploring every nook and cranny, or just streamline through and follow just the main events. By giving the audience so much power, it allows them to engage with the work in a more connected fashion. Simply adapting a video game as is would be nearly impossible, given that core factor of gameplay. Most video games have long stretches of item quests or action sequences that would consume too much time in a film medium, but would have room to breathe within the interactive confines of a video game. For example, some of the more lengthy puzzles from an old-school point-and-click adventure game might seem like a slog to audiences if they were a sequence in a film. So, how to get past that? I would say to focus on those things that you can translate: story, world, and characters.

As video games have been expanding and evolving, so too have the worlds and characters they offer. While the adventure games of old were made to show off their narratives in an interactive format, more and more games in genres like first-person shooters or action games are featuring engaging stories and characters. By putting the focus on the characters and story rather than worrying about translating the gameplay, a filmmaker could have a better chance at capturing the spirit of the game and why people love it. For example, one popular video game that was, at one point in time, being developed for a film was BioShock. Now, BioShock is one game that is renowned for its story and characters, set within the underwater Objectivist dystopia known as Rapture. However, I could not see adapting the game itself. The basic plot of the game is alright, though it is one whose method of unfolding is intrinsically tied to video game mechanics. Instead, I propose that a BioShock film would be best handled as a prequel to the game’s events. The reason why people were so hooked with the game was not solely the gameplay. Rather, it was because of the fascinating setting and captivating characters such as Andrew Ryan, a 1940s businessman who founded Rapture as a place “where the great would not be constrained by the small”, and Frank Fontaine, a crooked smuggler who serves as the non-believer reflection to Ryan’s hardcore Objectivist. Showcasing the fall of Rapture, as it crumbles from the war between Ryan and Fontaine along with the natural cracks forming among its citizens, would make for a gripping film and capture the spirit of the game while translating it to a passive medium.

Though video game movies currently have a cloud over them from the numerous duds and failures over the years, it does not always have to be this way. There are two films in development based on video games that show a greater promise than others have. The first film is Warcraft, based upon Blizzard Software’s hugely successful real-time strategy (and MMORPG, thanks to World of Warcraft) franchise. To be directed by Duncan Jones (the director of Moon and Source Code), the film will center around the first encounter between humans and orcs, following characters on both sides of the conflict and showing them in an equal light. The other film is Assassin’s Creed, based upon Ubisoft’s action game franchise, centered around the conflict between the Assassins (who seek for humanity to be free) against the Templars (who seek to control humanity to maintain order) as shown in the present day and in the genetic memories of Desmond Miles and his ancestors. The film (which is being co-produced by and starring Michael Fassbender) will be centered around Callum Lynch, a modern day man who uses the genetic memories of his 15th-century Spanish ancestor Aguilar to combat the Templars. Both ideas capture the spirit of their respective games, translating over the worlds or characters of their games while allowing themselves room to craft and develop a core story better tailed for a passive medium like film.

At the time of this post, I hope that both films live up to their potential. It is about time that someone makes a film that realizes the potential in translating video games and all of its iconic characters and worlds to the movie screen. All it needs is the right translator to get the job done and show the light.

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